T B Dinesh
Community Oriented Software
Dept of Computer Engineering
The context of a community can be a school, a locality such as an apartment complex, a village or a people interested in disaster management. What the community is, is then defined by its size, nature of urgency, process of management and the applications that they develop and use.
We are basically concerning ourselves about mobility and extranets in general, and certain social and collaborative applications in particular. These could be personal web sites or popular collaborative sites, but are likely to include custom community specific localized set of applications that serve the functioning needs of a community and related tasks of an individual.
On the technology infrastructure side, WiFi or mobile networks will play a significant role in defining the nature of interactions on the Internet and extranet. The community specific application platforms will be custom indigenous portals that feed into larger data/knowledge harvesters and in turn get fed from such pools organized according to their specific taxonomies and concepts of interest.
Let us consider the case of a school in Southern India with about 1200 kids and 150 teaching and other staff. The staff were introduced to Pantoto - a platform using which communities collaboratively create simple data gathering and process management applications. The staff and teachers enthusiastically developed five different applications in about 3 days. They are excited about streamlining processes and contributing to the applications that help manage the everyday issues of personnel, teacher substitutions, parent queries, student absence, admissions, library lending details, bus route management and such.
The school has 25 buses coming from various parts of the neighborhood, from as far away as 35 kilometers. Often both teachers and students travel in these buses. The travel time on the average is about 30 minutes each way. At school, they have access to Internet but the main artery for data exchange is for a local area network that is enhanced by WiFi. Various teachers and students have cell phones resulting in alternative direct access to each other and the outside world. Using the cell phones is expensive but not controlled while the LAN and WiFi is free but controlled. It is expected that most students and teachers will have cell phones or other mobile devices in a year or two, while class rooms and labs have computers and some of the students and teachers have laptops. The school has three campuses, each with its own LAN/WiFi but all three are not currently connected but they intend to be wireless connected in the near future.
A small application such as admissions process management might need the attention of as many as three teachers per admission application. Teachers and staff during the upcoming admissions season get involved with this, while teacher substitutions, students assignments, front office needs and such remain. Last week, the teachers built an admissions process management applications, using Pantoto. Pantoto can be considered as a data blogger and collator. They were excited to be able to quickly define their needs and build an application in half a day. Other teachers built similar web-applications for their needs. The sense among these teachers was that they could soon be able to manage and help manage the meta processes of running the school. Some of the teachers do not like to sitting by a desk, others are by their role always moving from class to class and between campuses. They seem to appreciate the nature of working with locally hosted web-applications, as they only need a browser to connect, work and know of the updated overview of the tasks they are in charge of. The questions and needs now are how they can use their cells phones. We discuss among ourselves the possibility of providing an SMS gateway to the applications using which they can reach and interact using forms. They would like get notices of the new entries and update the status or inform others of the status so as to minimize any adverse impact on the students. SMS gateways result in many SMSes being sent to authenticate and use a form driven entry, view recent entries and take action. They would eventually want VoIP using WiFi on their mobile devices so they can verbally communicate with others in the campus. They even discuss that students are planning a radio broadcast between 4 and 5 PM everyday, using the WiFi network.
For our discussion these are similar to the needs of a village community that manages a local job portal, serve market prices and provide disease assistance; or a disaster situation where missing people databases and volunteer/aid management become an issue.
Above is a case that we think will drive a lot of the interactions, from e-governance to community needs, in the mobile world of developing countries. Whether it is because the time spent on a bus is the best time to update the task of the day to either prepare for the upcoming day or to mark the end of the day, or simply because of the ubiquitous availability of the mobile device. In the coming years, these updates can instead be voice interactions with applications, where the applications are custom built for the community, serving localized needs across the digital and literacy divides.